© 2017 The Harpenden Society
Harpenden as a centre of cultural and arts activity continues to thrive. A large number of groups and societies in the town embrace a broad range of interests, notably music, dance, drama and literature, as well as different forms of art and adult education.
An opportunity for them to make their activities more widely known – with the chance of attracting new members – came at an open meeting of the Harpenden Society in October, where representatives from a dozen or so organisations were invited to make brief presentations.
At the same time each speaker was asked to spell out his or her group’s aspirations for the future, in the context of St Albans District Council’s proposals for a new ‘cultural hub’ in Rothamsted Park, intended to replace, and improve upon, the town’s present Public Halls complex.
Hurst Children’s Theatre Group
Jonas Hurst, who founded the group some 12 years ago, said it played a valuable role in building young people’s confidence while performing in front of an audience. They looked forward to rehearsing and performing in the group’s two major productions each year, currently staged in the large Public Hall. The venue had its limitations however and the theatre group deserved better. Designers of the new facility should have theatrical know-how, to ensure a big enough stage and adequate backstage facilities for handling scenery and so on. He cited St Albans’ Westminster Lodge theatre as a model.
Harpenden High Street Players
Mike Lees from The Players, whose origins go back to 1943, agreed, while adding that the envisaged 500-seat capacity at the new hub venue was too large for the kind of plays currently staged twice a year in the Methodist Church Hall (with its 120-seat maximum capacity), the Players’ home venue. Smaller spaces were also needed for theatre workshops and play readings. He pointed out that concerts and drama productions imposed quite different demands on a theatre venue. The cost of hiring a venue was also critical, especially bearing in mind rehearsal time, often over several days.
Harpenden Concert Band
Founded barely four years ago with only 12 to 15 members, the band now had about 40 enthusiastic players, said Alison Fox. It put on three major performances a year, in May, September and at Christmas, with attendance proceeds going to charity; some £500 was raised at the last concert. Emphasis was placed on encouraging young people to join, adding that the band nevertheless pursued a ‘challenging repertoire’. She said prime requirements for any venue where the band performed included a suitably open space and an adequate sound system, in combination with good acoustics.
Harpenden Choral Society
Four concerts a year, including a Yuletide Carol Concert, were given by what was emphatically an amateur choir, said Alan Jackson, albeit one with a membership approaching a hundred. The society currently used the High Street Methodist hall for its smaller events. But more ambitious productions, such as the recently staged Elijah, demanded larger venues, able to accommodate the full choir, together with say a 40-piece orchestra, in front of an audience of perhaps 350. The proposed cultural hub theatre promised such a requirement, although the question of cost loomed large. He made a plea for the matter of acoustics to be addressed by the architectural planners at an early stage.
Magic Voices Music Choir
There were typically about 45 singers at Magic Voices rehearsals and subsequent performances, said Liz Burnett. The group had no particular cultural pretensions, tending to favour popular West End Show material which maximised the enjoyment and enthusiasm of its members and those who listened to them, for example at the town’s Christmas Carnival. She said the choir had ambitious plans for the future, for which a large venue as envisaged for the new hub – but with good acoustics – would be needed.
Miriam McKay described her group as an ‘audition choir’. She said that because there were, living in Harpenden, ‘an extraordinary community of musicians’ belonging to different groups, a large venue like the one proposed for new hub – able to accommodate audiences of up to 500 – was needed, where those groups could come together. She said Lea Singers had high aspirations, citing its performance of the St Matthew Passion, backed by professional instrumentalists. The choir performed regularly in churches, though not everyone, among audiences and singers, felt comfortable in church venues, so the proposed hub theatre facility was of interest. Like other speakers at the meeting, Ms McKay requested that acoustics, with and without amplification, be addressed in advance. She also made a plea for flexibility of space, implying movable partitions to cater for different scales of workshop activity.
Music Makers of Harpenden
Tim Painter said Music Makers, a registered charity, had between 40 and 45 members. A typical venue for the group’s performances was High Street Methodist Church hall which, he maintained, had excellent acoustics. As to the comfort of audiences, it had often been commented that church seating needed cushions. But he said alternative venues, notably the existing Public Halls, were unaffordable, and in any case, regardless of cost, he felt that the Music Makers would be ‘drowned’ in a 500-seat auditorium venue of the kind envisaged in the new hub facility.
Harpenden Film Society
Colin Ratcliffe said the society, formed seven years ago, now showed about 25 films a year in the large Public Hall, to audiences averaging 120 people. He conceded that the present venue was ‘falling apart’. Its seating, the central heating and the sound-system/acoustics all left a lot to be desired. However, he considered its central prominent location an important asset from a publicity standpoint. Consequently he feared that the proposed new theatre facility, would lose out through being ‘tucked away’ inside Rothamsted Park. He also questioned the availability of adequate car parking.
Herts Visual Arts
Hillary Taylor, an artist herself, said her county-wide group was dedicated to maintaining the cultural heritage of the arts. It was essential, she said, that the proposed hub incorporated a ‘community space’ which would do justice to events such as art exhibitions, while reinforcing the requirement for smaller workshop spaces, not necessarily aimed at an audience. She championed the cause of ‘inter-active arts events’ citing the inclusion of an art display at a recent local history society exhibition.
Harpenden Local History Society
Gavin Ross said the society, established in 1973, held monthly evening meetings for its 200 or so members in the Small Public Hall, addressed by notable guest speakers, as well as quarterly exhibitions in Park Hall featuring historic photographs and other archive material, focussed on particular subjects or areas of the town. The great ‘dream’ of the local history society was the establishment of a Harpenden Museum; and the cultural hub proposals appeared to offer its possible realisation. A regularly-refreshed local history display area in the new hub had been mooted. But there was an important additional need for archive space to replace the inadequate cramped accommodation of the small room at Park Hall made available in recent years by the Town Council. That limited space had currently to be augmented with ad hoc storage in members’ lofts and garages.
Joyce Bunting explained that the group, created in 1997, effectively grew out of Workers’ Educational Association creative writing courses, appealing in particular to those aspiring to have their work published. At its monthly meetings, usually held in the Quaker Meeting House, members read their work aloud for others to comment upon, or enjoyed talks by a guest author, poet or tutor. She said the proposed Arts Hub could provide an opportunity for members to liaise productively with other creative groups.
Eric Midwinter, a founder of the University of the Third Age movement nationally, said the organisation was formed in part to ‘suppress ageism prejudice’, asserting that those no longer in full-time employment were not ‘social casualties’. The U3A was a self-help group, channelling older people’s knowledge for the intellectual benefit of each other. He expressed the opinion that the present Public Halls failed to meet the needs of a body like the U3A, which required, ideally, a number of meeting rooms, each accommodating eight to 15 people. The future hub facility therefore needed the flexibility of partitioned spaces.
From the floor of the meeting Adrian Burrows represented the countrywide folk dance group formed in 1975. He said folk song and dance groups such as English Miscellany could make good use of a facility like the one proposed. But because of the joyful and sometimes boisterous noise of the music, singing and even clog dancing, the need for good sound insulation was paramount.